Where is Labour heading with its tuition fee pledge?

Ed Miliband has hinted at a big announcement on higher education, an area where the party seems confused at best.

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In a speech today at Sheffield Hallam Students’ Union, Ed Miliband denounced the “scandal” of a million voters disappearing from the electoral register. He also hinted that the Labour party will have more to say on higher education in the coming months.

It has been long suspected that if the polls were looking particularly grim for Labour this month then an announcement on higher education and tuition fees would be imminent. A commitment from Labour to cut tuition fees is crucial in retaining the support of disaffected young Lib Dems who have come flocking to the Labour party, but so far a long-term plan on the issue hasn’t been agreed.

Miliband during the speech, said: “We also want to do more for students heading to university, who leave at the end burdened down with debt. By the time of our manifesto, having listened to you, we will have more to say on higher education. And unlike Nick Clegg, we will keep the promises we make.”

Labour’s policy on the matter has been far from clear and coherent in the past:
 

  • Running for Labour’s leadership in 2010, Miliband said he would consult vice-chancellors and universities to produce a plan to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax.
     
  • In 2011 Miliband said that Labour would reduce the headline rate of tuition fees to £6,000. This was not a manifesto commitment – rather more of a “if we were in government now” claim.
     
  • In December 2013 the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne confirmed it was Labour’s long-term goal to introduce a “graduate tax”.  He said: “The policy we’ve set out is what we would do if we were in government today. Ed Miliband also said in his leadership campaign, our long-term goal must to be move towards a graduate tax. What we’ll have to do in our manifesto is take our starting point of 6k fees, explain how we see the situation for 2015 to 2020, and how we’ll see a long-term shift to a graduate tax.”
     
  • In March 2014 the Sunday Times splashed on reports that Labour were planning to slash tuition fees by at least £3,000 a year. The paper also said that Miliband was being urged by his inner circle to make a final decision on the policy in time to announce it at the party conference.
     
  • There was no announcement on tuition fees at the party conference in October 2014. George Eaton reported that the policy was resisted by senior figures (said to include Ed Balls and the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne) who were concerned about the £2bn cost.
     

According to Douglas Alexander, Labour’s manifesto will include a pledge to scrap the coalition’s £9,000 a year tuition fees and replace it with a maximum of £6,000 – but Labour is yet to agree on a long-term policy. We’ve contacted shadow universities minister Liam Byrne about this, and we’ll be speaking to him on Monday.

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn